The Asian Values Debate and the Moral Synthesis Goals of Comparative Philosophy
Professor of Chinese Philosophy
University of Hong Kong
Working Draft in preparation for presentation at APA Eastern Division Meetings, Dec. 1997
Lee and Patten: The First Order Debate.
The Asian values debate has spread over a wide territory embracing law, international treaty, economics and diplomacy. I propose here to focus on the normative issues of most philosophical interest and explore how philosophically informed interpretations might be relevant to those issues. I argue that the appeal to Asian values does two related things. It functions as a complex excuse condition coupled with a request for moral respect. The latter request is related to the legendary goal of East-West moral synthesis. I argue that comparative philosophy should eschew directing itself at either the current political or the synthesis goals. On analogy with history of philosophy generally, comparative studies should focus on the quality of interpretation in preference to attempting to tie ancient thinkers to contemporary philosophical and ethical problems.
What distinguishes comparative philosophy from ethnography is its ability to strengthen the case for that respect. I will try to explain the kind of respect in question and suggest some plausible grounds for it. Then I will argue that it is the kind of respect that is required for the more ambitious and obscure goal of moral synthesis. I will argue that comparative philosophy, by focusing on the case for respect, can best contribute to that goal indirectly. Trying to direct the course of that synthesis may actually undermine the case for it.
Supposedly a first order moral disagreement triggers the the Asian values debate. Some spokesman, Patten (say former Hong Kong Governor Patten) says to counterpart Lee (Former first minister Lee Kwan Yiu of Singapore) "You should not throw people in jail for long prison terms for criticizing you." Lee replies, "There is nothing wrong with doing that." The ensuing debate should simply take the form usually addressed in moral issues courses and Philosophy and Public Affairs. How (and why) would we move from this first order disagreement to a metaethical reflection on the social nature of ethics?
The difference between the "human rights and Asian values" issue and other normative disagreements should be that the participants come from different cultures. We do not typically make a point of identifying the participants when we pose moral issues. We could, however, reframe any applied moral dispute in this way. V from Vermont says to T from Texas, "You shouldn't allow a death penalty." T replies, "There is nothing wrong with the death penalty," or C from the catholic Church says to A atheist "you shouldn't have an abortion" and A replies "Abortion is morally permissible." Identifying the participants should change these issues in analogous ways if at all.
The reason is that we can distinguish moral communities in many different ways. Comparative ethics potentially underwrites any first order moral disagreement in the same way it does Asian values. Lee and Patten, as surely as Texans and Vermonters share some of their moral culture and disagree about other parts. The first order disagreement they have could arise within either of their respective moral communities. Some Chinese favor liberty and democracy and some Vermonters advocate the death penalty. Much of the internal dialogue is essentially similar to the cross cultural one.
The difference is Lee intends to short-circuit this normal discussion with the complaint: "You are imposing your Western values on Chinese society." This move, supposedly, would not be appropriate for the Texan. However, the Texan could observe that he is disagreeing with the Vermonter in moral principle rather than about relevant facts. (Note that the most common line of argument against human rights in Asia is factual-e.g., that their economic vulnerability makes liberal values impractical.) If all Lee is doing is making that point, it does not distinguish this from the more familiar intra-cultural moral disagreements. Any moral disagreements may stem from conflicting views of the facts or from a clash of principle.
The question is simply "should governments punish people for publicly disagreeing with their policies?" Either the identity of the participants is irrelevant or it is relevant only in the way it is to death penalty and abortion questions. Identifying the participants may help us predict or explain why each takes his positions. For this, we do not need comparative philosophy, but social science.
The sociological insights may have ethical significance. To the degree that we can explain a view as a function of someone's socialization, we are inclined to some level of tolerance or forgiveness. A Vermonter in Texas may choose to avoid discussing capital punishment -- at least discuss it less freely and energetically than he would "at home." We may not only choose to avoid confrontation, but may even excuse the perceived error. Faced with an otherwise nice person from a different background, we offer "cultural" information to temper our critical judgment. Similarly, if we think that something about being Chinese inclines one to favor punishing dissidents, we may diplomatically drop the issue without making as harsh a judgment of the person than if the disagreement had been voiced by someone closer to us in ethical-cultural context. All this is commonplace. Sometimes it is wrong to criticize wrongdoing; sometimes it is not our place; sometimes it is morally unimportant; and sometimes people can be excused for their incorrect moral judgments.
Much of the point of the Asian values debate appears to run along these trivial diplomatic lines. Diplomats ought to be aware of when they are treading on sensitive issues. Travelers and exchange students should be cautioned against excessive arrogance and bluntness in expressing certain opinions in certain social contexts.
How might comparative philosophy's role here differ from that of ethnography? Can it do anything beyond warning us of the probability of disagreement in certain situations and help us avoid unpleasant exchanges. Even here, it seems out of place. The point is that most people accept certain beliefs, not that these are what Confucius actually or validly advocated. Admittedly, it does buttress ethnography with more extensive insight into that descriptive information. However, it's hard to see any direct way it can contribute to settling the first order moral disagreement. Consider the familiar jumble of argument strategies one finds in the literature.
Any contemporary Chinese or Westerner already has a degree of shared culture. While Texans share more culture with Vermonters than either does with Chinese, it remains a matter of degree and it is not obvious why the difference makes the ordinary course of first-order moral debate inappropriate. The rhethorical advantage of focusing on Confucius is obvious in that there we can imagine a near total absence of transmission based sharing. (Some scholars are suspicions of such claims of isolation even for very early Chinese thought. See Mair (1990)) So in Confucius' case we are limited to the values shared on purely normative theory grounds. This is an appropriate topic for comparative philosophy, but hardly relevant to the first-order normative issue between Patten and Lee-unless Lee takes Confucius' moral authority exceptionally seriously.
"Naturalistic turns" in moral epistemology may give an enhanced rational status to authority. That is, we may want to look more closely at how humans actually come to their moral views and/or argue that "Confucius said so" is a more rational move in Chinese moral reflection than it may seem. We may offer some observations about the costs of moral reflection, the complexity of the issues, the need for social agreement, and the limited but real rationality of accepting authority in general etc. in defense of the rationality of argument from authority.
Insofar, however, as those are natural moral epistemology concerns as opposed to culturally determined ones, they cannot remove the analogy to "The Bible says . . . ." when offered in the course of an abortion debate. Confucian interpretive arguments are relevant to the human rights issue in approximately the same way. A study of the bible fails to turn up anyplace where Christ says "abortions are permissible." When Lee Kwan Yiu says the comparable thing to fellow Chinese Wei Jing-sheng, the latter shrugs his shoulders and says, "So what?" Why can't Patten respond in the same way?
The historical arguments are academically sound and often fascinating. Beyond diplomacy, however, their relevance to the first order issue is unclear. Reflecting on the origins of individualism in the West might cast rhetorical aspersions on the "depth" of the underlying values in the West either by showing that they are comparatively recent or by implying our "considered judgments" here do not result from ethical reflection. Similarly, the "rationality" of Chinese attitudes may be hinted at by making them seem rational in the historical context or appealing to the "naturalistic" rationality of accepting the authority of our earlier moral decisions. Beyond these rhetorical hints, though, it's hard to see their argumentative force in the first order debate.
Some of these strategies are clearly relevant to the first-order issue, for example, Rawlsian and Communitarian arguments. However, they seem largely independent of the results of comparative philosophy (i.e., philosophically informed interpretive theories). Rawlsian arguments may require some descriptive knowledge of China's economics, politics, sociology etc. but they do not depend in any obvious way on the interpretation of Chinese philosophers. Religion and other widespread moral beliefs are among the constraints that operate in moral decision, but even when they are derived from philosophers rather than religious figures, they become the domain of ethnography more than philosophical interpretation.
Communitarian arguments are clearly relevant to the first order issue of the status of human rights. They draw our attention to our cultural and historical identities and make these more central to our concept of morality than does our 'individualist' tradition. These arguments cast doubt on appeals to neutrality and abstract moral rationality and thus may convince us to revise our account of the status of rights claims.
The arguments for this change in ethical approach, however, do not obviously presuppose or rely on information from comparative interpretation. Suppose it were true that some Chinese philosophers had attitudes about morality that were more like those communitarians are currently urging on Western tradition. It is hard to see how this would strengthen the argument for those analyses unless the target audience accepted some version of "argument from outside authority."
Were some versions of the Communitarian critique of individualism correct, then humans do not have natural rights period. They would not, however, need Confucius on their side to get this result. Of course, if such Communitarian arguments were sound, then a typical Western human rights posture would appear not merely arrogant, but lacking in suitable reflection.
Communitarian arguments, however, do suggest something that may be relevant. If we cannot appeal to neutral rationality in justifying moral conclusions, then we may be forced to a more social or traditions notion of the nature of morality. A less abstract and neutral conception may soften the Socratic opposition between "critical" or "rational" morality and traditional mores. Metaethics has seen a revival of pluralist conceptions of morality and we will want to consider their impact on this issue below.
Various strategies may be combined. The historical and authority arguments may both be combined with communitarian or Rawlsian arguments. The plausibility of communitarian lines of thought or of historical stories about objective "crises" in which the "conditions of justice" were not satisfied can make more the moral attitudes attributed to cultural icons more plausible or rational. This makes the historical stories useful as background in explaining and justifying the interpretation (via interpretive principles like charity or humanity). However, this combination makes applied ethics important to comparative philosophy more than the reverse.
The Move to Moral Relativism: Focus on the Community.
How can any of these strategies motivate Lee's opting out of the first order moral discussion? Implicitly we imagine this is a case where Patten and Lee reach an argumentative impasse. Both would be fully rational discussants who clash because of their respective cultural orientations. However, none of these strategies can effectively demonstrate or exploit that. Lee's are, in point of fact, typically arguments that Patten should be able to follow and appreciate from his standard Western perspective. Similarly, we have no reason to think that Lee cannot follow any arguments Patten might give for not jailing dissidents.
Lee's appeal to difference in culture must be different from mere disagreement about moral principles or weights. "Freedom of speech and democracy are Western values. They don't apply to Asian Cultures" This would not make sense as a response if Lee were disagreeing about the formulation, weight or priority of Rawls principle? If Lee offers it prior to attempting to argue for his position on any point, it invites the flippant response "Asians are, after all, humans." If he offers fuller reasons for the alleged Asian values, he will return to the logical space of normal normative debate. He will always be open to the demand to explain and justify his norms. What would allow him to rest on the claim that he "has" them?
What tempts us is the idea that the Asian values dispute is real-life example of the kind of ultimate moral impasse that interests philosophers. We imagine that no lines of discussion from the initial disagreement can lead to any progress in settling the issue between Patten and Lee. What would allow him to rest on the claim of Asian "specialness" would be that Patten would not be able to take on board what counts as reasons in Asian schemes of moral justification. Lee should not want the claim to depend on the stubbornness of the participants, their impatience, arrogance, their limitations as ethical theorists or the like. For this, however, we need more than ordinary clash of values or principles. If Lee is merely a communitarian or a virtue ethicist, he should continue the discussion as any Western thinker of that persuasion would.
What we need, in other words, is a kind of incommensurability that would warrant cutting off the debate. Henry Rosemont's account of the situation helps us here. He suggests that Chinese prescriptive discourse is so different from Western moral discourse that it should not even be called "morality." We should not think of Patten and Lee as having a moral debate. China has an evolved and dominant form of discourse guiding interpersonal behavior. However, it differs so radically from Western discourse that further debate makes no point. Lee offers the Asian values response in an apparently sincere effort to make a point that he admits to not being able to formulate or justify (at least to Patten in his terms).
The Analogy of an Excuse
In the context of a moral debate, this claim could be offered as a kind of excuse within Patten's moral perspective. Lee is asking Patten to excuse him from further accounting for or defending his prescriptive judgment. To imagine an excusable impasse between cultural systems, however, Patten still needs some basis for moral or rational respect. Lee should motivate Patten to accept the cultural or social value of adopting Lee's different ethical structure. Otherwise, Patten should simply treat it as a case of Lee's failure to defend his judgment.
I intend a specialized sense of "excusing" for this point. We can divide excuses along several dimensions. We may either excuse an action or the judgment that guided it. Focusing on the judgment, we may excuse it on epistemically principled grounds or on other grounds such as cost, urgency etc. We may excuse epistemic reliance on sincere beliefs about either facts or values (norms). For present purposes, we consider excusing (1) the judgment (2) on epistemic grounds of (3) ignorance of the relevant norms guiding the judgment.
Finally, we can grade subjective evaluations with the usual square of opposition: forbidden, required, permissible, and omissible. Let us call it strong or "positive" excusing when we implicitly praise the judgment as subjectively required or right as opposed to merely excusing the judgment as subjectively permissible. We may, that is, conclude that the judging agent, given his epistemic situation, was subjectively required make the objectively wrong judgment.
Basis of Asian Values Excuse
Action (strength of impulse etc.)
Other (convenience, cost, etc.)
Value or norm commitments
Erroneous factual beliefs
Deserving moral respect (subjectively required): Positive excusing
Simple excuse (Subjectively permissible): Weak excusing.
Provisionally, let us treat Lee's Asian values gambit as inviting Patten to treat it as a plea for a positive excuse within his own moral framework. Lee wants Patten to acknowledge that they have reached different conclusions because each operates correctly with different normative systems. Lee's use of his system is subjectively as right as is Patten's. He has reasoned responsibly and well given his existing background beliefs.
The Bid for Moral Tradition Respect
Of course, one difference still separates Lee's appeal to Asian values and an ordinary request for an excuse. The latter normally assumes objective error. Lee does not. His debate interrupting move may imply either "one of us is in error but we have no way to decide who." or "there may be several equally correct positions." The appeal requests respect prior to settling the debate on two grounds. The first is "We (Chinese) have reasoned (subjectively) correctly" and the second is "Our scheme of norms guiding our reasoning deserves respect." We have assumed that Lee speaks to Patten in his (Patten's) moral language. He asks Patten to acknowledge that the Asian values system deserves moral-tradition respect (MTR).
This request for moral tradition respect is a theoretically interesting thread through the Asian values debate. As Blackburn (1984) notes, the mere fact that someone disagrees with us does not normally give us reflective pause. What excites a skeptical or relativistic nerve is that someone we respect as a careful ethical reasoner disagrees with us. Extrapolating, the mere observation that different cultures enshrine different moral attitudes seldom stimulates reflective relativism. On reflection, we would be tempted to such views only when we imagine that a culture has evolved its moral perspective in a process of disciplined and focused reflection that is roughly equivalent to ours.
Moral-tradition respect is analogous in some ways to respect for individuals as rational beings. Here I will notionally depart from Rosemont and call a social norm system that warrants such respect a morality. The initial conditions for such respect are (1) a suitably reflective pedigree, (2) that it has evolved and (3) been culturally successful. Although these conditions are not intended as a definition of morality, they would normally ensure that the alternative tradition will have a distinction between the evolved, reflective attitudes and more purely traditional mores-even their own. They would distinguish between widespread but unreflective or religiously based judgmental attitudes and morality.
More content-driven attempts to distill the "essence" of morality risk begging important questions in the Asian values context. Parker (1997), for example, argues that further conversation between communitarians and liberals should be based on the compromise of accepting the importance of the individual in morality. However, Rosemont (following Fingarette) argues that the notion of individual "choice" is alien to the Classical Confucian "morality."
We should, given this analysis, leave open to the possibility that Chinese morality worked along more communal lines. Individuals may not be its default moral agents. I suspect we would still accord the system the appropriate level of respect if we were willing to excuse the community on the grounds explained above and we treated the system of practical reasoning as one that had evolved reflectively. But are these conditions enough to warrant the respect we would give a moral tradition?
Western moral discourse normally separates out those prescriptive systems based on reason. A similar problem, however, faces any attempt to make "rational" the defining characteristic of morality." Chinese normative thought does not obviously rest on a concept with a sufficiently close "family-relationship" to human reason. (Hansen 1992:140-43 and 1995) However, we can here utilize Gibbard's substitute to undergird our case for moral tradition respect. We can generalize "reasoning" to the notion of applying a system or hierarchy of standards in deliberation or discourse. If the system is evolved, reflective and successful, we may suspect either that it has this kind of hierarchical complexity or some pragmatically functional equivalent.
Morality and Rationality
Let us think of morality as such a complex, hierarchical system of standards governing evaluations--our praising, blaming, excusing, feeling guilty or angry and so forth. Deliberating about and accepting a standard are themselves bits of normative discourse, and can be judged by higher standards. Thus the system of standards can form a hierarchy that is open at the top. This open, reflectively evolved complexity is a plausible minimal condition of moral-tradition respect.
Rationality's "aura" is borrowed via our notions of "complex," "evolved" and "reflective." When Patten accords this kind of respect for a moral system, he projects that it has developed by a process of self-criticism. The norms develop through moral experience and as a result of internal discussion aimed at improving them. We are most likely to accord such respect when we treat it as philosophically informed ethical tradition. Since we suppose that a moral system improves the performance of a society, we would also be more impressed with a society that had a considerable historical success on certain objective measures. Clearly "China" is a prima facie candidate for this kind of respect.
Although I want to leave open the question whether or not morality must treat individuals as the default moral agents, there is another respect in which I want to resist a communal analysis of morality. It seems close to the essence of morality that it aspires to what Blackburn has called quasi-objectivity and Gibbard calls modest or non-Platonic objectivity.(Gibbard 1990:155) That is, Lee should not assume that it is the mere fact that China's has the different values warrants the excuse. Neither Patten's nor Lee's perspective treats morality as merely an optional, local prejudice. We judge from our present beliefs, but do not think that the mere fact of their being ours makes them correct. Lee may be a pluralist, in that he do not suppose that only one morality can be correct, but he may not assume that being correct is merely being the view actually held or believed.
The reason this kind of objectivity is required for respect comes from the excuse analogy. Excusing while judging "subjectively right" requires that we do not attribute the mistake to epistemic negligence. Just as the ignorance-of-facts excuse requires that we have made reasonable efforts to ascertain the relevant facts, so error in norms requires that we (a culture) have engaged in sufficient critical reflection in the process of evolving its norms of moral judgment. If it merely accepted its norms as revelations, we would be less inclined to grant MTR. So we can find a place for a kind of internal autonomy of morality even within a communal or traditional conception of moral discourse. Morality is not simply what I/we conclude about normative questions, but how the standards and the language of evaluation shared within a moral community should guide my/its conclusions. It is not merely what the community agrees on, but what its shared standards warrant.
Moral-tradition respect might draw on a number of other more content-laden beliefs about the alien morality. It certainly helps when the other tradition agrees with us on some important moral issues or strikes us as highly moral. Probably more evidence of the evolved character and success of cannibalistic communities would be required than for, say Chinese tradition where we immediately appreciate the opposition to violence, its essentially egalitarian character, its valuing of harmony and so forth. A considerable overlap in moral judgments helps us to retain respect in the face of powerful differences.
Conversely, I suspect, the more we project difference in the deep patterns of reasoning the more tolerant we will be of differences in judgment. Here the mysterious aura surrounding Asia and China may play a role. This pair of constrasting motivations helps explain our somewhat contrasting reaction to Middle-Eastern moral traditions. We share more historical, religious and philosophical underpinnings with the Middle East. When this awareness of shared background is paired with apparently more radical moral disagreements (the perceived cruelty, male dominance, etc.) we become less inclined to grant MTR.
The more familiar intellectual context of the disagreement tempts us to explain it as shallow, essentially religious moral bigotry, special pleading or the like. The familiarity of intellectual context makes it more tempting to treat it as we do the similar judgments that an unreflective or bigoted member of our home moral communities might make. Thus, moral tradition respect diminishes when defenses start to look suspiciously familiar. The mystique of the Far East allows a suspicion that a deep and profound difference in approach to the issues may lie behind the specific moral disagreements. This may help further the case for greater respect for the Chinese moral judgments than for similar moral attitudes expressed by either the Texan or the Iraqi.
Grounds for MTR
Reflective and evolved
Survived and comparatively successful as a social guidance system.
Morally autonomous v. mere mores and traditional attitudes.
Substantial overlap in moral judgments
Prima Facie deep differences in approach
Affords us similar respect (?)
In appealing for this kind of moral-tradition respect, Lee does not rely on his own moral perspective. He appeals to Patten from where Patten now stands using Patten's notions of subjective rightness, moral autonomy, egalitarianism, etc. He addresses a request for positive excusing in terms that Patten should accept. He could even appeal to Rawls' methodology of reflective equilibrium to help make his case.
Rawlsians, he might argue, are not only committed to first order judgments in favor of liberty, but also to moral epistemological judgments in favor of reasoning by reaching a reflective equilibrium of our "considered moral judgments." Lee may be asking Patten to recognize that the conflicting Asian political position is the result of something equivalent to reflective equilibrium.
What is less clear is if MTR requires that the tradition vying for such respect must reciprocate it. In theory a superior moral theory may command respect without giving it to the inferior. However, the tone (sometime at least) suggests Lee is requesting something more like an "acceptance as equals" respect between traditions. If his tradition is incapable of appreciating and being open to alternative perspectives, it may seem, prima facie, to count against according it such respect. Is the Chinese moral perspective as justified by its own higher norms to accord moral-tradition respect to Western ethical systems as the Western one is? If it is not, the request for one-way respect forces us to choose between the hypotheses that it is vastly superior and that it is morally arrogant.
I have argued that traditional Confucian morality did not have a "clean" counterpart of excuse conditions or a distinction between subjective and objective duties (indeed of "duty" in general). As with most such arguments, however, my point is not that Chinese are incapable of entertaining the thoughts but that it uses a complex of ethical structures that are functionally equivalent at some suitably high level of description but no single part of which corresponds to 'excuse'. What one may fairly expect, then, is not explicitly the same judgment, but that it treats the Western moral outlook in a way that is an evolved, responsive and reflective morality would. If it reveals itself as less able to appreciate and respect variation in moral outlooks, that would, at least rhetorically, undermines its own appeal for moral-tradition respect.
The Grand Moral Synthesis of East and West
The Asian values debate dovetails, here, with a venerable goal of comparative ethics-the long cherished synthesis of East and West. I'm assuming the Western tendency to grant Chinese culture something like MTR stimulated this goal. One of the consequences of moral-tradition respect is that it stimulates us to envision the possibility of such a synthesis. It's only with moral tradition respect that we contemplate the possibility of a synthetic moral reform of our own moral thinking - we entertain the invitation to "reevaluate values" along lines that capture something superior in the alternative tradition. The mystique and respect for the Chinese tradition thus provided more of an impetus for this search for a moral point of view that combines the strengths of both cultural moral systems than did the West's encounter with other cultures.
Exposure to an evolved, reflective alternative is thus an external stimulus to moral reflection-one that plugs a new element into our normal process of reflective equilibrium. We can represent this as a perturbation induced by awareness of an alternative, comparably reflective equilibrium point. It reminds us that reasoned moral reflection from different starting points might yield widely different moral norms.
The notion of synthesis does seem to involve the reciprocity. For any moral tradition which stimulates a goal of synthesis, we can expect that both would be interested in the possibility of a third conceivable morality that is superior to both-say by incorporating elements from each. This need not result from the assumption that any reflective ethics will be formally realistic, that is, assume there is one right moral answer. It may only stem from the internal motivation to be seriously reflective, which carries the assumption that reflection is worthwhile. Recognizing another system as reflectively self-correcting should explain why both would entertain the imaginative possibility of a higher or synthesizing moral dao. The awareness introduces a new perturbation into an existing reflective equilibrium of moral judgments.
How does this synthesis take place and do comparative philosophers have the role Northrop envisioned for them in bringing it about? In the image that grants importance to comparative philosophers, they appear as moral prophets, spokesmen with sufficient insights into both cultures to construct the synthesized morality. They select and incorporate the appropriate features from both systems from the privileged comparative vantage point of the comparativist. This conceit may stem from exaggerating the role of philosophers in the evolution of reflective ethics. Reflecting on the process of moral development we have presupposed in reaching this result casts doubt on this conception of the process.
What is more likely (and what is rational from the point of view of each rival morality) is merely the extension of ongoing moral discussion within each perspective. That moral discussion draws on its existing norms and its considered judgments in reflective equilibrium. All that is added is the destabilizing awareness of the existence of an alternative tradition of approximately equivalent depth and reflective development. We come to have MTR for another moral tradition.
The image of top-down formulation and advocacy by cross-cultural prophets appears unrealistic when we adopt the more naturalistic picture of moral epistemology (which we used to motivate it). Philosophers are not disenfranchised from moral discussion, but they do not directly construct our reflective morality. In clarifying and presenting the system's coherence, they contribute important elements to the discussion. However, nothing can rationally recommend the revaluation of values except reasoning from the norms we have here and now. If the moral systems are indeed complex and rich enough to deserve moral tradition respect they will have a rich structure of higher norms in place and will appeal to these rather than the observation that someone else believes otherwise. Neither would include the mere fact of inclusion in an alternative morality, on its own, as a sound reason for guiding our lives by them.
The envisioned cross-cultural synthesis, if it comes, will similarly be a product of gradual moral evolution on both sides conducted in awareness and interaction with the other tradition. Comparative philosophers contribute, analogously, by clarifying and illuminating the coherence of the other tradition. People exposed to the tradition will pick up some things and reject others. What they accept and reject, they normally will judge from "where they are." Each would be irrational to judge from some imagined or rationalized projection of where the synthesis point will someday lie.
Since each culture absorbs whatever it does from "here" we cannot guarantee that there will be any convergence, far less envision it as a conscious or deliberate rational goal. The normal processes of immigration, trade, diplomacy, growth of the Internet, world media organizations, intermarriage etc. may do more to ensure convergence than philosophical imagination from either side. Philosophers travel, intermarry and attend conferences abroad so they are part of the process but are improbable as "great helmsmen."
China has its "radical Westernizers" while he West has its "Sinophiles." It probably contributes to the "rationality" of a society that some portion of its members be "irrationally" attracted to alternative points of view. Consider the analogy of the "socially rational" distribution of tendencies to skepticism and to acceptance of traditional authority. Clearly, having some members who raise questions and doubts about traditional moral views promotes a society's interest in moral evolution. Equally clearly, having too many who do it would undermine its stability. The tendency to comparatively uncritical relativism, in this context, may be analogous to the tendency to skepticism. It may be "socially rational" that some within the community be inclined to be somewhat less rational along traditionalist and relativist lines.
The Role of Comparative Philosophy
Many of the familiar arguments about comparative style can be revisited in this context. The perennial question of whether we should emphasize similarity or difference reemerges in our different conditions for respect. Showing that Chinese norms warrant decisions that overlap in sufficient ways with ours is one of the ways to invite such respect. However, so is showing some of the deep differences, particularly when similar judgments emerge despite the deep differences in conceptual structure.
The related choice between a strict principle of charity and the principle of humanity also pulls in both directions. Insofar as the principle of charity privileges interpretations that agree with us (or some live moral possibility such as virtue ethics or communitarian ethics) it will have the effect of furthering respect (at least to the degree that the home tradition respects virtue or communitarian positions). On the other hand, making coherent rational sense of difference also contributes directly to the case for moral-tradition respect.
The principle of humanity still has the advantage that identifying Chinese thought with some familiar contemporary position may backfire. What this strategy needs to contribute clearly to the debate and to moral-tradition respect are arguments that are both new and rational - as judged from our present grounds. If Chinese ethics adopts the position for the same reasons as the contemporary advocates, it contributes nothing new to the local debate. If it adopts it for different reasons then we may find its reasoning helpful, but it is the reasoning that counts not the fact that Chinese thinkers adopt the position. The reasons would be as good if given by a contemporary Westerner.
If the Chinese thinker does not give reasons or the reasons are not good ones, then merely citing the shared position may actually undermine respect. In the absence of reflectively adequate motivation, citing the similar outlook may make the tradition look revelatory or "accidental" rather than reflective. The challenge to make the interpretation of Chinese thought coherent and philosophically deep probably requires making it deeply different from Western thought. Trying to put it in the same logical space risks rendering it shallow or essentially religious.
These choices sometimes place hardships on our sub-profession because they bear on our status and acceptance within two disparate academic communities between which we balance precariously. When professional philosophers are encouraged to explore Chinese or Asian studies, these tensions start to emerge. We all work in the awareness that most of our philosophical colleagues regard what they see presented as Chinese thought as either not at all or as barely philosophical. When we are invited and encouraged to use our professional philosophy training in comparative areas, the two disciplines may have quite different agendas. Sinologists hope we will call our philosophical colleagues to repentance and do a better job of presenting the philosophical insights (as Sinologists now perceive them) from Chinese thinkers. Philosophers hope we will correct or improve on the interpretation or at least its formulation or, at the least, not require the constant reminders that what we are presenting simply is not philosophy.
If we choose to work in Chinese philosophy (presumably accepting its philosophical character) we implicitly alternate between two different "error theories." Either we agree with Sinologists that Western philosophers are, as a professional community, peculiarly biased, limited in openness to different philosophical insights. Otherwise, we agree with philosophers that traditional Sinologists and interpreters, as a professional body, have been deficient in appreciating, extracting and/or expressing any philosophical content of Chinese thought. Either, that is, the texts have been misinterpreted or the reigning interpretations are unfairly denigrated.
To oversimplify a bit, Comparativists pick a strategy of lecturing to Western philosophers or to Western Sinologists. One view takes it that philosophical training should ideally give us the tools to "push" the Asian or Chinese case for respect on our philosophical colleagues and awaken them from their "close-minded" slumbers. The alternative view is that our philosophical training should equip us to appreciate and bring out the deep assumptions and conceptual structure that would reveal the philosophical character of Chinese thought to intellectual historians and comparative religious scholars and other non-philosophers in the Sinological community.
I intended my argument to support the latter choice, though as I noted, naturalistic reflections on the process of moral synthesis do not warrant any prohibition on advocacy of Asian values position within the profession or to the public at large. The philosophical community, arguably, has greater proportion of skeptical types than the general population, however. And it is hard to see why it should not also have a large contingent of those open to new ideas-even if somewhat uncritically to open to them.
My worry is that in advocacy, my colleagues may undercut the case for moral tradition respect that is required for either positive excusing or the evolution of moral synthesis. The key is the degree to which we substitute reporting and praising "default" Chinese moral outlooks for showing the conclusions to be the warranted conclusions a coherent, reflective, and evolved moral system. In uncritically reporting the orientation without placing it in a reflectively impressive enough context, we undercut respect for our own intellectual integrity as well as moral tradition respect within the profession.
The tendency to report on Confucian attitudes or the attitudes of Confucius himself in this context, will make the ethical system seem essentially religious to critical theorists. Confucius was, after all, merely the first step in the development of Chinese philosophy, not the product of several hundred years of reflective moral philosophy. Presenting his views as the defining judgment of Chinese philosophy is a little like presenting "all is water" as the defining judgment of Western philosophy.
I have argued at some length that Confucianism may be the least philosophical of the traditional groupings of Chinese trends of thought. So even when we focus on Confucianism in general, rather than Confucius himself, we still risk giving the impression that Chinese ethics is like Catholic or Jewish ethics-the product of pious interpretation of traditional canons rather than a fully reflective, self-critically evolving tradition.
A similar point applies with somewhat less force to enlisting Confucianism (particularly in the guise of "the Chinese perspective") in modern disputes about virtue ethics or communitarian critiques of liberalism. Insofar as we are reporting a characteristic, we do nothing to strengthen the internal arguments for either position. As I noted, these are better understood as cases where the familiarity with these modern turns in normative analysis gives us a way of reading Chinese (particularly Confucian) texts. The principle of charity is at work here. We find a way to construe the distant writings as saying something akin to what we (many of us) now think is true. The "humanity" objection to this use of charity is that we need to explain why it was warranted for these thinkers to have drawn the locally familiar conclusion. Further we need to ask if Confucian advocates of this approach had adequate answers to their Mohist, Daoist and Legalist critics.
This admonition should be weakened somewhat in view of our "naturalistic" approach. As a natural matter, of course, cultural change is not always guided by rational reflection on norms. The "community" is a rich and complicated tapestry of attitudes and practices and the evolution of moral discourse is distributed across all its threads. Clearly our "Radical Westernizers" and "Sinophiles" do contribute to both societies in helping spread ideas that can enrich each culture by sustaining its awareness of-cultural alternative. They contribute to the evolution even if competent philosophers reject their arguments.
Still, in our role as professional philosophers particularly within our professional body, we do more to advance the case for MTR by giving philosophically sound interpretations. This strategy works even if it makes Chinese thought neutral or tangential to some contemporary issue or debate. This particular normative context gives another argument for the principle of humanity over the principle of charity. The normative implications of the Asian values debate do not warrant any change in our core activity of giving philosophically justified interpretations. We should not take it as a goal of that activity that we contribute to some contemporary philosophical issue.
The argument I am making has interesting parallels in recent trends among historians of philosophy. They are reacting against the briefly dominant historical style that accompanied the "linguistic turn." It generated historical studies that viewed past thinkers as wrestling with issues in theory of language. The result, this counter-trend argues, is that such histories burlesque these earlier thinkers to make them icons (or whipping boys) in the philosophical litany that becomes a "paradigm" in our professional philosophical education.
Recent historical studies emphasize the difference of the issues that drove the Western historical story at various times. The result usually reveals a deeper respect for our historical forbears by revealing new complexity in both their philosophical tasks and accomplishments. Hence, we do not take them as defining poles in a contemporary debate, but as reminders of the variety and wealth of philosophical perspectives including those that led to the modern state.
Clearly, historians of philosophy, like comparativists, can participate in debates about current philosophical issues and can draw on anything they learn from their historical studies in doing so. But they abandon the model of history of philosophy that tests the quality of an interpretation by whether the philosopher deals with the "live" questions of philosophy. The comparative analysis can hardly be more relevant to us than it would be to an internal moral discussion among Chinese faced with the same prospect of synthesis. What Confucius or classical Confucians believed is not relevant to current political discussions in Hong Kong. The philosophically inclined and the serious policy formulators would discuss the norms and attitudes on their face, not war about the interpretation of Confucius. Nor, we should note, would such authority have been relevant to Mozi, Zhuangzi, or even Xunzi. Only the soundness of Confucius' arguments could play this role.
Comparative philosophy belongs to the general realm of history of philosophy and should be guided by similar standards. Showing the complex wealth of issues that drove philosophy helps us better and more realistically appreciate the philosophical abilities both of earlier philosophers in our tradition and of philosophy in a different tradition.
The philosophical contribution of studies of our own and of comparative history may differ. Our own may contribute to a deeper understanding of inherited concepts and norms by appreciating what motivated postulating and enshrining them. Another tradition may help us to appreciate that our concepts and norms are optional as opposed to necessary results of any competent philosophical reflection. That a concept (e.g., such as "belief" "mind" or "concept") is optional is not an argument for abandoning it, but it is relevant to such arguments when some philosophers oppose abandoning it on grounds that it is "intuitive" or "instinctive."
This may be the mechanism by which comparative ethics can introduce perturbations into the Western reflective equilibrium. If we can show that fully reflective advanced ethical thinkers relied on different ethical concepts or assumptions, that undermines the confidence that our own are instinctive or natural elements from which ethical reasoning needs to start. The crux is to show that the result is indeed reflective and that requires that we forgo advocacy for analysis.
My argument for using the principle of humanity will appear counter-intuitive if I derive it partly from its unappealing capacity to defend China's human rights record. Clearly, that conclusion rests more comfortably on the goal of the moral synthesis of China and the West. I do want to understand why so many seem to find part of the Asian values defense of human rights normatively significant, especially given my own reservations. In concluding, however, I want to argue that many of the apologies comparativists offer for the Asian values position are weakened or defeated by their misuse of the principle of humanity.
What the argument rejects is defenses of Asian values appeals that simply appeal to conclusions about the character of Confucianism without showing that its adopting that approach is warranted by the standards of the relevant community. My estimate is that most of defenses of the Confucian position on human rights fail here. They need to show that, in David Wong's formulation, Confucianism (as they construe it) is an "adequate moral system" for Chinese. If there are cogent criticisms of its structure or attitudes voiced by other Chinese thinkers then we should surely entertain there are grounds for doubt in the Chinese scheme of reasoning. If internal criticisms are not adequately answered (where "adequate" is also relativized to that cultures norms of reasoning), then it is simply a mistake for any Chinese to follow Confucianism in this regard. To isolate "Confucianism" as the community and draw them out of the context of their fellow language users is a transparent attempt to evade internally warranted criticism.
Needless to say, this is an obvious objection, since the people being jailed in China are Chinese citizens, born, raised and educated in China, not Western Rawls scholars. Clearly Chinese norms of practical reason always have and still do contain powerful grounds for rejecting Confucian authoritarianism.
The point is one about the principle of humanity. Like the principle of charity, it must operate holistically. It does no warrant, as too many comparativists assume, doing whatever is necessary to make sense of Mencius or even of Confucianism. It is a principle of making sense of the entire linguistic community-of all sides in its philosophical disagreements. This is important when we are considering moral synthesis. No impulse to synthesis would make sense that considered the reflectively inadequate or erroneous positions taken by Chinese moral thinkers. It surely does not warrant synthesis merely on the grounds of political choice, religious conversion or other non-reflectively evolved routes to historical dominance.
Clearly, other interpreters may disagree with my pessimistic assessment of Confucianism's philosophical status, but they need to defend it by taking on board the obviously appealing philosophical criticisms raised by its own native philosophers. I continue to believe that our failing to do so is the principle contributing explanation for the disdain with which our academic community views Chinese philosophy.
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